12/21/2012 07:20 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Tradition, Tradition! Christmas Dinner Revisited


As I write this post, I face a steep mountain. I don't mean the kind you have to climb. I mean the kind you have to sauté, bake, roast, chop, stir, mash and shop for. I'm talking about Christmas dinner, the "traditional" Christmas dinner that my mother made for fifty-some years. The dinner she learned how to prepare from her mother, who learned from her mother before her, and so on... and so on.

For the past decade, since Mom's passing, the tradition has rested in my hands, and my family -- immediate and extended- - travels to my modest (read: cramped and cluttered) New Jersey home each year to re-enact the meal that we once all shared around a table (actually it's the same table) in a spacious Victorian home in upstate New York.

One might wonder why a person for whom dinner of late (since the kids have gone off to college and beyond) means mung beans and brown rice or veggie sushi from Whole Foods is suddenly shopping for a 25 pound (albeit free range) turkey (try as I might, I have not been able to convert my three male carnivore offspring to vegetarianism). But here's the rub: Mom always served precisely the same fare on Christmas Eve and precisely the same meal on Christmas day. Eve was an eclectic menu of baked ham, baked beans, spinach lasagna (her nod to the vegetarians, of which there was only one in the family -- if that -- in her day), green salad, potato salad and Christmas cookies.

Christmas day was turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cole slaw (I know, weird!), fruit salad, squash, cranberry sauce, stuffing, green salad, apple and pumpkin pie with whipped cream and a brown sugar candy called penuche (the only item I am totally unable to re-create, as my mother left no instructions: recipes welcome!). Other than the penuche, nothing confounding here, but getting everything ready at once can be a challenge.

Now... families have changed, times have changed, and most especially (for me, anyway) I have changed in the past decade, so why in the world would I want to hang on to my mother's tradition, which was birthed in the farmlands of upstate New York in the l920s or even earlier?

Beats me. But when I suggested to my then 13-year-old son one year after my mother had passed that I might "skip" the fruit salad I got a stern lecture. "Mom," he said, "These are your roots. You need to return to them once in a while."

Thus, even though I am now a vegetarian, my sister-in-law is a vegan, my husband and other sister-in-law have gone gluten-free, and as a breast cancer survivor, I try to avoid sugar, meat and anything not organic... I am still bound and determined to re-create my mother's (née Virginia) Christmas and Christmas Eve dinner once a year. (BTW, I have not yet proclaimed "no meat products allowed on the premises" as I still live with meat-lovers. My husband, however, tends to the meatier items.)

There is little I do anymore that resembles my mother's life (other than care for my family). I do not iron my husband's (or, truthfully, my own) shirts. I do not dust (nor does anyone else in my home, I've noticed). I do not sew buttons or darn socks. I don't go to church on Sundays (I do have a daily spiritual practice, though). I do not watch soap operas. And so much more. But I cannot let go of the Christmas Day/Eve traditions. I just... can... not.

What's so great about traditions? I ask myself this each year as I'm frantically preparing the annual feast. Well, for one thing, they remind us of the loved ones who are departed. For another, they pass on to our children the foods and rituals from long ago. And as my son points out, traditions bring us back to our roots, even if in our daily lives we deny and reject them. Traditions help us to remember where we came from (even if that's not a place we want to inhabit any more). And yes, I have created some traditions of my own; roasted Brussels sprouts were never part of my mom's repertoire, but I've added them to the menu.

One day, no doubt, I'm going to give up my mom's culinary rituals (i.e. I can't imagine myself slinging all these dishes around when I'm in my 80's, though Mom did exactly that she had the help of two daughters and a niece) and because I am the mother of three sons, none of whom are particularly adept at cooking or interested in the kitchen, chances are those traditions will end with me. (Potential daughters-in-law will probably come equipped with traditions of their own.)

But for some reason, I'm not yet ready to let go. To me, Christmas still means gathering around my mother's table, serving the foods she served, and paying homage to the past. Pass the cranberries, please?